08 August 2010

Poda-Podas and Pledges

“Some of your best and worst Peace Corps memories will come while on public transport,” quoted our training officer as we prepared to leave Bo and head on our site visit. For the first time since arriving in country, we were not going to be within the comforts of our white NGO Peace Corp Land Rovers.
We headed to our sites with our Principals, who had came to Bo for a Supervisor’s workshop to essentially introduce them to their PCT and to help them understand what Peace Corps is about. Within the first hour, I found out my principal is called the “Iron Lady” and is this strong, independent and intelligent Sierra Leone who is in charge of one of the largest girl’s boarding schools in the country. Yep, intimidated! Well, thankfully, Meghan and I headed to Moyamba via my principal’s car with her nephew at the helm. From Bo, it’s about a two to three hour drive. The first half of the trip is on a wicked reconstructed highway that is better then most roads in SD. But we turned off the highway onto a jungle road and headed into the bush. Passing through hidden Sierra Leone villages that would just basically appear out of no where in the jungle, our rough and tumble red dirt road finally led us to the quiet town of Moyamba. I will be spending two years at Harford School for Girl’s which is literally resembles a medieval boarding school or if you are an Harry Potter fan, the Hogwarts of SL. Seriously, not kidding. I live on a campus. I spent the weekend with my Principal, discussing my classes, seeing the town and oh introducing my self to the entire church in Krio.
After the weekend was over, Meghan, Brandon (my friend who is living in a small village ten miles from Moyamba) and myself prepared to jump in our bush taxi to the ride back to Bo. My principal, the proper SL woman that she is, pretty much decided for me that jeans and a t-shirt was pretty unacceptable to make the journey. So five minutes before leaving, I was whisked into her bedroom by her nieces and essentially dressed from head to toe in Africana attire. Brandon said that my outfit was wearing me instead of me wearing it. So in my Africana, I jumped in our car which was a hodge-podge of aluminum assembled on a car frame. Jones, our driver, had enough reggae for the journey so we took off towards Bo, making frequent stops to pick up people who mysterious come out of the bush looking for a ride. We had everything from bags of rice, bunches of plantains and about ten people crammed into our car as well as several boys sitting on the top. At one point, we stopped to pick up a lady, her baby and her bananas and Jones set to work hot wiring something underneath his sit. I found it’s better not to ask many questions. This is Africa.
My second and somewhat more realistic poda-poda experience came from our ride from Freetown. In the last week, we returned to the capital city to give a tour and understand the logistics of how Freetown operates. It was weird being back in our old stomping grounds of the Stadium Hostel. For a town that literally scared the crap out of me when I descended off the ferry from Lungi International, Freetown has lost it’s edge or I have a better understanding of West African cities. I kept thinking what the heck I was so afraid of. We had some brief meetings at the Peace Corps office, talked about some policies and then were turned loose into the city. With the responsibility getting ourselves back to Bo, I found myself at the bus station, feeling overwhelmed. We were dropped off at the Gov Bus to Bo and hustled to the back row. This was not actually a seat which was placed in the bus by the manufacturer but yep a wooden bench bolted to the floor of the vessel. Yep, I felt super safe! My feet were barely touching the ground before they wedged like a million bags of rice under my feet. We were like sardines in a tin can which sped rapidly towards our training site. On the curves, the bench would shift and I felt like I was on an amusement ride. Besides, the cramping in my legs, or the 16 year old African boy laying on me or the utter suffocation, I felt at peace. I had four hours to drink in the beautiful SL countryside, chat with my buddies and just love the fact that I am in West Africa. We made it without major complications and mentally logged the trip as an SL highlight.
Heading into week 10, I am at a crossroad that has been over 18 months in the making and I can’t believe I am finally here. PST is about to end and I will officially be sworn in as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer on August 13th (cross your fingers, it its Friday the 13th). I am feeling very apprehensive, excited, nervous and exhilarated all one top of the daunting task of still learning how to navigate the language and the culture. My two year service clock is about to start ticking and I am ecstatic to hopefully with any luck make my small contribution to the global community. By the way, you all probably know how much of a rockstar public speaker I am ( or NOT), well in honor of my personal Peace Corps struggle and learning how to step out of my comfort zone, I have volunteered myself to give the “Vote of Thanks” at the swearing in ceremony. Yep, pretty much going to be the trainee’s rep to thank all those to make our training possible. Again, cross your fingers, public speaking is not my strong point and it is Friday the 13th. This is the last dispatch as PCT Alli, next time I can change that “T” to a “V” and just call me a real live Peace Corps Volunteer.


One of the Peace Corps goals is to “help the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women.” Essentially, giving people the tools to better their well being. But for a Volunteer to be successful, first must understand the culture, learn how to effectively teach in a SL classroom and acquire the language skills to integrate into the community or basically participate in a wrapped up package with a Peace Corps ribbon known as PST- Pre-Service Training.

Basically, I am going to attempt to give a brief overview of what the heck I have been actually doing for the past ten weeks.

Obviously, language plays a key role in how successfully a Volunteer can mix and interact with his or her community. Volunteers are not in country to survive as tourists and only witness the warm fuzzy tropical beautiful locales that SL does offer; it’s a wonderful added bonus to being a Volunteer in West Africa. While we will always be foreigners- it’s hard to hide pumuyness- more respect and appreciation is given if you make a whole- hearted effort to learn the local language. Plus, you really can’t intimately understand or accept the culture without connecting through the language.
SL is a former British colony; English is one of the country’s official languages as well as a Creole language known as Krio, then thrown on top is this linguistic mix is several dozen regional local languages. So we hit the ground running with Krio, which is essentially a combination of coastal West African languages and English from sailors and traders moving in and out of Freetown. Our language classes are considered “community-based” facilitated by Sierra Leonean native speakers. In a nutshell, we go to class, they give us the words, expressions and phrases, and then we wander out into the community to test out our newly acquired skills. Since Krio is one of SL’s Lingua Franca, it’s spoken by just about everyone. It’s an interesting language to learn, as English’s cousin the structure is very similar however most words are pronounced differently. After two months, we were I guess considered Krio masters (scary and pretty much a lie) or at least they wanted to believe….so after getting our site assignments, we switched over to our regional languages. I can check “learn African indigenous language” off my bucket list. Since I am heading to what is considered the southern region of SL, I will deep into “Mende”land. Yep, just started back to square one with another language and a language which bares zero resemblance to any other language I have ever learned in the past. Oh and let’s mentioned it’s not often written. Let’s just say I am stumbling around in the dark when it comes to Mende.
So when we aren’t attempting to understand why “kp” actually makes a “b” sound in Mende, we do have to learn how to teach. Our technical portion of PST brought in SLeoneans teachers and professionals to prepare us for the challenges and rewards of the classroom. We started by teaching each other, then to small groups of SL children, then on to full classes at a summer school with, of course, constructive criticism along the way.
The last part of PST is focused on Cultural, Cross-Cultural and administrative information of the Peace Corps. We need to learn that it’s not polite to eat with your right hand while eating together our of one bowel with your hands, or that smell food is a no and that’ there is a lack of platonic relationships between men and women. Basically, preparing us for the mistakes that will be made and how we can understand and learn from them on a cultural level. We spend a lot of time talking about how we can living in an unique culture while maintaining our own identity. Americans we take great pride in keeping our individualism while Sierra Leone is a culture which is heavily networked in the family unit and identifying themselves as a whole rather then as individuals. How do we look at culture and what sort of ‘cultural glasses’ to we use to look at the world. It’s not about understanding everything about a culture but understanding where each party is coming from and why we view the world in different ways. How does culture shock work and do I have yet to hit the bottom of the culture shock U?